Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow seeks to answer a question that is almost universally ignored, dismissed, or answered incorrectly. The question is: Where have all the black men gone? This question, although simple, can prove hard to answer because of the stereotype that surrounds it. Some might hear the question and think of the stereotype of the absent black father, dismissing the question as invalid, since stereotypes usually have no bearing on a group’s actual behavior. However, Alexander immediately disputes this assumption, saying, “The sense that black men have disappeared is rooted in reality. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2002 that there are nearly 3 million more black adult women in black communities across the United States, a gender gap of 26 percent.” So, the question is valid. Where have all the black men gone? While many have theorized that moral decay, religious apathy, or a lack of a strong community are to blame, each of these ignores the obvious answer that nobody wants to acknowledge: That a staggering portion of the adult black male population are in prison, and many of those that are not currently in prison have been there before. It’s an ugly truth that reflects far more on our society as a whole than those behind bars. In an era where racial equality is largely assumed because of a few black men and women who have risen to the heights of celebrity, overt racism has been replaced by systemic racism. This system of oppression has been built into our legal system so thoroughly that racial inequality no longer requires the dedicated efforts of prejudiced individuals; it perpetuates itself, and the apathy resulting from the myth of a post-racial society is all it needs to be sustained.
The overt oppression of millions of black men in America would not be possible today. Social attitudes have shifted to the point where most Americans despise racism, and those that do not are unlikely to admit it. Today’s oppression is laundered through the legal system. Rather than disempowering black men directly, the “New Jim Crow” system, as Alexander calls it, first labels these men as criminals, then proceeds to disempower them. Unfortunately, social attitudes have not progressed so far as to demand ethical treatment and equality for convicted persons, so most people actually see this oppression as a service, protecting our society from those that would corrupt it. Sadly, the only way to “protect” society from criminals in a system that disempowers them past the point of supporting themselves through legal means is to keep them out of society all together.
Although the prison system in the U.S. is thoroughly corrupt and backwards, this does not explain why such a startling proportion of those prison’s tenants are black men. The disproportionate imprisonment of black men is, unfortunately, a self-perpetuating system. As black men are released from prison, many of them return to the same communities they lived in previously. Once there, they find themselves unable to find gainful employment, as most salaried positions won’t even consider hiring ex-convicts. Thus, they are forced to reoffend to support themselves and their families, and are quickly swept back into the prison system. Those that do not reoffend are often found in violation of their parole for associating with those that do. Meanwhile, court and prison fees funnel money out of these communities, impoverishing the remaining residents, which, of course, leads to more criminal activity. The cycle perpetuates itself, and nobody protests, because who wouldn’t want criminals off of the streets? Even as this cycle turns innocent people into desperate people, and finally into criminals, nobody lifts a finger. And for what? Is the satisfaction of being “tough on crime”, the sense of superiority we gain from knowing that, no matter how low we get, we’ll always be better than criminals, worth it? Is it really worth tearing apart millions of families and trapping innocents in an endless cycle of poverty just to make sure that a judge gets reelected, or to line the pockets of the private prison industry?